The Exorcist is advertised as the scariest book of all time. I didn’t think I could call myself a true horror junkie until I had read it.
The story follows two main characters: Chris McNeal, an actress and mother; and Damien Karras, a priest who’s reconsidering his decision to become a priest. One day, Chris’s daughter, Regan, gets sick and starts acting strangely. Doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. The mystery disease becomes so bad that Regan has to be strapped to a bed to keep from hurting herself or anybody else. Suspecting that Regan is possessed by a demon, Chris goes to Karras for help.
I love horror because it’s not really about monsters (or demons). Those things are just representations of society’s worries. Deep down, The Exorcist is about the fear of losing control. The demon takes over Regan’s body and uses it to humiliate her and to hurt people. Regan has no control of the creature inside her. The story is also about the fear of powerlessness. Chris tries everything to save her daughter. She becomes increasingly frantic as she runs out of options. Chris can only watch as the demon slowly kills Regan. That’s every parent’s worst nightmare. The Exorcist is probably considered one of the scariest books of all time because it taps into many of our most primal fears.
“The demon's target is not the possessed; it is us the observers . . . everyone in this house. I think the point is to make us despair . . . to reject our humanity: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.” – The Exorcist
If you’re squeamish or easily offended, then you need to stay far away from this book. It’s disgusting. There’s green vomit, diarrhea, and many inappropriate sexy times. Lots of cussing too. You’ll need a strong stomach for this one. The gross stuff is even grosser because a lot of it comes from a twelve-year-old child. I know that twelve-year-olds can be interested in sex (especially when they’re possessed by demons, I guess), but still, yuck.
“[Regan] advised me to keep my fingers away from her goddamned cunt.” – The Exorcist
What surprised me about The Exorcist is that most of it doesn’t focus on the exorcism itself. The exorcism is only a small part of the story and happens in the last few chapters. Most of the book is about the process of getting permission to do an exorcism. Since I’m fascinated by religion, I love this aspect of the story. It’s interesting to see all the steps that Chris and Karras have to go through to prove that Regan is possessed. It’s not easy to get permission for an exorcism. If permission is granted, the exorcism may not even work. The suspense in this story comes from wondering if Regan will be saved or not. The author keeps us guessing until the very end.
Karras is my favorite character because he’s complex, but I wasn’t a fan of most of the other characters. They range from one-dimensional to completely insufferable. I especially dislike detective Kinderman. His stuttering, repetitive dialogue massively grated on my nerves. I was tempted to start skimming every time he showed up on the page. His murder investigation did add extra drama to the plot, though, so I guess I can forgive the author (a little).
So, is The Exorcist the scariest book of all time? I’m not sure. It’s gross and cringe-inducing. Some parts of it are suspenseful. I was creeped out by the demon taking control of Regan’s body and contorting it in painful ways. But, I can’t say I ever felt scared while reading.
Now I need to watch the movie. I’ve never seen it, so it will be interesting to see how it compares to the book.